Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 75

The Kremlin appeared to clear up at least some of the ambiguities about Moscow’s current relations with Beijing when the Russian Foreign Ministry indicated yesterday that President-elect Vladimir Putin will pay an official visit to China sometime before the July summit of the G-7 countries and Russia. Unnamed Foreign Ministry sources were reported to have said that Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin will set the specific dates for the Russian-Chinese summit meeting when the two men meet in late May at another summit meeting–this one set for Tajikistan in late May and involving the leaders of Russia, China and three Central Asian nations.

A Japanese news agency report suggested that Putin’s visit to Beijing would follow unusually closely on the heels of former President Boris Yeltsin’s trip to the Chinese capital in December of last year. It also noted that China will apparently be the first Asian country to be visited by Putin following his inauguration. Those facts led the Japanese report to conclude that Putin–like Yeltsin before him–intends to focus more attention on ties to China than on those to Japan (Kyodo, April 13).

If Putin has indeed decided to visit China prior to the July G-7 summit, then the decision appears to be a recent one. Even a day earlier Russian Foreign Ministry sources were still saying that the Russian president-elect might not be able to fit in a China trip until later in the year (Russian agencies, April 12). Putin had pledged earlier, however, to make a China visit one of his first priorities following an expected election victory on March 26. The absence of plans in this direction over the past two weeks led to speculation that the Kremlin may actually be looking to downgrade the relations with China that Yeltsin in his last months in the Kremlin had been at such pains to emphasize.

Whether Russia and China will continue to strengthen their ties will likely be evident at the Beijing summit. During a visit of his own to China in early March, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov said that Russia and China were then in the process of preparing a “very important document,” one that will be signed at the summit. He provided no details, but said it would “declare and specifically record the balanced nature of our relations, as well as actions of our countries on true strategic partnership” (Bridge News, Itar-Tass, March 2).

Russia and China have long proclaimed themselves to be conjoined in a strategic partnership, but have actually made only limited progress in actualizing that relationship on more concrete terms. Klebanov oversees Russia’s defense complex, and it is not out of the question that he was suggesting a closer defense relationship between Moscow and Beijing might be in the offing. China is already, along with India, a leading purchaser of Russian military hardware.